River cane in CN being mapped, studied
10/24/2013 8:31:47 AM
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Cherokee Nation Administration Liaison Pat Gwin uses a Global Positioning System device to map river cane near Greasy, Okla., in southern Adair County. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
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Cherokee Nation Administration Liaison Pat Gwin uses a Global Positioning System device to map river cane near Greasy, Okla., in southern Adair County. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
BY WILL CHAVEZ Senior Reporter GREASY, Okla. – A project to map and study river cane in the Cherokee Nation is under way as two researchers complete work in Adair County. In this southern Adair County community, near the Sallisaw Creek, University of Arkansas graduate student and CN citizen Roger Cain, as well as CN Administration Liaison Pat Gwin, have been mapping river cane in a densely wooded area. “It’s a project we started this past year to start identifying and mapping river cane,” Cain, who is finishing a master’s degree in ethno-botany with an emphasis on river cane, said. He said after the river cane fields are identified and mapped, a usage policy would be developed to preserve the plant and its ecosystems for future generations. Research has found river cane riparian zones significantly reduce nutrient loads into area streams, creeks and rivers, Cain said. This research has implications for the controversial issue of local poultry farmers allegedly polluting the Illinois River with runoff containing poultry waste. Gwin said once the river cane data is compiled, the CN would likely have the largest database in Oklahoma and possibly the entire United States. “It’s a very important plant. I think it has a lot to offer for both the cultural preservation of the Cherokee, and I think it also has a lot to offer scientifically in the future. This is groundbreaking research,” Gwin said. “A misconception with cane is its name. It’s called river cane. I don’t think that’s a very good name. I think it would be far better referred to as flood plain cane or bamboo.” He said Cain’s research includes gathering soil profiles to show where cane is growing and where the CN may be able to artificially introduce and successfully grow it. Gwin said 99 percent of the canebrakes the two men are finding are not flourishing due to past land management practices and other reasons. “Estimates are, by specialists in the field of ethno-botany and ethno-biology, is that 2 percent of the population of river cane is left in the whole country,” Cain said. That 98 percent decline has occurred since Europeans made contact with Native people in North America about 500 years ago, he said. Large areas of canebrakes were once abundant along river bottoms in the southeastern United States. Canebrakes are now considered critically endangered ecosystems because of agriculture, grazing, fire suppression and urbanization. Gwin said canebrakes would likely lesson the affects of flooding in low-lying areas if they still existed next to streams and rivers in urban areas. Research shows that Cherokee people living in the southeast frequently used river cane for sleeping mats, food, flutes, blowguns, baskets and cover for homes. “It was our plastic. When archeologists go into prehistoric sites, be it Cherokee or any Southeastern woodland (tribe), the plants they find more predominately than anything else is river cane and hickory,” Cain said. Severe winter weather and drought conditions from recent years have decimated area cane fields. Dead stalks littered the cane fields visited by Cain and Gwin as they mapped the fields near Sallisaw Creek. After those major kills of the plant, Cain said he became concerned there was not much cane left and what was left needed protection, so he successfully lobbied the CN Environmental Protection Commission to place the plant on the tribe’s Culturally Protected Species List. Cain said he and Gwin have covered 13,000 acres so far and have found only 50 total acres of cane growing on CN land in Adair County. Gwin uses a Global Positioning System device and Geographic Information Systems to map the canebrakes. So far, only tribal lands in Adair County have been mapped for river cane, but Gwin said research and mapping would done on tribal lands in other counties soon. “It’s been very educational for me. I’ve learned more about cane in the last couple of months than I have in my entire life,” Gwin said. “The goal is we will survey every inch of tribal trust property and determine the presence of cane and the cane brakes. For the most part we have found it in smaller brakes.” He added that the stalks studied so far range from 2 feet tall to 20 feet tall located in small canebrakes. “We certainly don’t have the very large breaks that most people think of when they look at the large flood plains of the Baron Fork (Creek) and the Illinois River. We don’t have any like that that we’ve seen yet,” Gwin said.

will-chavez@cherokee.org

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